Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Maturity and Solving Holly

My novelettes Maturity and Solving Holly are out now in two anthologies, currently available as paperbacks.

Maturity is part of the Contact: Stories of the New World anthology.


Contact: Stories of the New World takes you beyond the edge of the solar system into the uncharted horizons of deep space, where the spaces and dimensions in between are explored and worlds of mystery are discovered. New beginnings. Old fears. Persistence of vision. Here are the chronicles of the new world.  



Solving Holly is part of the Nuclear Town USA anthology.


There will come a time when everything we know and love will cease to exist. But how will such a disaster transpire - by nuclear warfare, ecological collapse, technological failure, perhaps pandemic? And how would we cope in our last hours, in catastrophe's wake? This theme of finality is explored in Nuclear Town USA, a collection of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction set across a diversity of scenarios and backdrops. From fast-paced thrillers to dark reflections, each story intriguingly captures frightening alt-realities surrounding humanity's twilight.



Alternatively, you can read both stories for free:



Saturday, December 7, 2013

Blemish

Fiction Vortex published my short story "Blemish".

Click here to read it.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Convent

My short story "Convent" is out now at Fiction365.

Click here to read it.

Monday, July 8, 2013

To the End of Time, or Lisa (Audio)

An audio version of my short story "To the End of Time, or Lisa" is out now at Way of the Buffalo Podcast.

Click here to listen to the story.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Maturity

My novelette Maturity is out at Eunoia Review.

For another self-contained story set in the same universe, see Solving Holly.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Shifted

My short story Shifted is out at Omnibucket. This story originally appeared in Fiction365 in September 2012.

Click here to read it.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Solving Holly

Descartes reads me the names of the dead.

I place my porcelain mug on a stack of old documents, a brownish ring of dried coffee over the scribbles indicates exactly where.

“Samantha Foley: blunt force trauma to the head.” The projector regurgitates a round face covered by blond shoulder-length hair. Saggy eyes look right through me. The movement of my finger is followed by three successive optometric blasts. Three stills of the corpse and a 2D map of the crime scene pop up on both sides of the sullen face. My workroom briefly takes the grim form of a commemorative mural for Sam Foley while I study her case.

Nothing interesting, I say to myself. Solvable by anyone with half a brain.

I cast the projections to digital oblivion with a finger swipe. “Next.”

Descartes obeys.

“Rashida Rains: apparent drug overdose,” he says. I sip bitter black coffee while Rashida’s dead face cuts through the room’s darkness, phasing into view.

Above my head the AC hums a low-pitched tune as it sucks out stale air. I’m feeling somewhat jittery and jumpy. To remedy that I hasten to rearrange the space before me. A towering pile of books is consigned to the ground. I shove a bulky green folder with case file printouts in the desk drawer. The plastic case of microchips cracks slightly as I try to squeeze it in there too, so I give up, and throw it to the ground. A swipe of the arm over the desk and all pencils, pill bottles, scribbles and batteries rattle down to the floor.

That’s better. Only my coffee mug and projection gear sit between the holographic portrait and me. I take a deep breath.

I lean forward. Blue eyes bulge out of the sad face shaped like a crescent. A pale complexion. Dark hair tied in a bun. For a brief moment I wonder how such a pretty girl ended up sad and dead but then I remember my last drug-related case and flick Rashida’s photo and info out of view with a shudder. I better notify the Agency to keep me off junkies for a while. Darkness swallows me whole.

I get up, pick my mug up. “Next.”

Descartes senses me leaving my desk, relays the projections over to the walls of the hallway. His voice in my head says the radiant face and mussed up hair belong to a certain Tarik Bosich, casualty of the Strasbourg protests. Doesn’t sound familiar so I request further info. As I enter the tiny kitchen an anchorman’s voice is buffering to be streamed to my cochlea. In the kitchen, a stainless-steel sink cradles a leaning tower of unwashed plates and an aluminium table with rounded edges sits between two straight-backed chairs. Light falls in shafts from an overhead neon, pale and fragile, refracting off the table in random directions. I drain the mug, pour myself more coffee from the machine on the counter.

“Disaster in the Alsatian capital: a mob of five thousand protestors have gathered here before the European Court of Human Rights demanding the repeal of the controversial Universal Afterlife bill, guaranteeing any recently deceased person a free brain scan and transfer to Paradise City—” A trail of disturbing images follows me back to my workroom. One of the protestors pulls out a bomb and the police freak out. Alphanumerics inform me that in total four people have died: one from police bullets, the other three in the resulting stampede. The video from the event plays out on my unkempt walls, ochre blemishes of dead pixels in places of cracks. Cameras zoom in on the suspected terrorist who pulls a flare out of a jacket pocket. The police chief apologizes, his face crooked and bent on the wall’s edge.

Back in my swivelling chair now. A bunch of images are scattered over thin air, one of which is a gaunt face with dishevelled hair. His floating head seems familiar but in a very subway advertisement way. The inscription beneath it says it belongs to Peter F. Casey, Paradise City’s main engineer. Can’t really say I’ve heard much about his work, but then again being buried in a murder case for eight fucking months with hardly any sleep will make anyone lose track of who’s who in day to day politics. Besides, I’ve cancelled my subscriptions to NewsNet feeds years ago.

My thumb and forefinger from a circle and Descartes zooms in on the man’s face which now takes half the space above my desk.

“Peter Fredericks Casey,” he speaks in a pitchy vibrato, “born in Rockville, Maryland on April 5th 2008 is a computer engineer, neurophysiologist and humanitarian…” I listen to him drone on about the man’s background, education and the string of successive events that have led him to his current position. I slurp more black coffee while Descartes’ harmonizing voice updates me on the Paradise City situation. Last I heard it was ridiculed and described as the rich nerd’s wettest dream but apparently in the last few months the project’s picked up steam due to government funding in Europe. It even appears they’re trying to finance post mortem migration for the poor, which critics sense could be a stepping stone to making digital immortality mandatory — a blasphemous intrusion into people’s lives, they claim. I read up on it a bit, then clench my hand in a fist and all floating pixels shrivel up and die, leaving me once more bereft of light.

Humming from above.

“Next.” I lean back, rock myself back and forth.

“Miranda Holly: suicide.”

I cough, choking on my coffee. A hazy portrait hangs mid-air. Through watering eyes I gape at the data next to the face to make sure I didn’t mishear. Why the hell would Agency route a suicide case my way? Thumb to middle then to forefinger and the official police report appears. My eyes dart across the room, absorbing all available information.
I take in the rapid flickering of lights, let it flow straight to my subconscious engines of understanding. The pieces of the puzzle arrange themselves with great ease in those far-flung corners of my mind. I don’t interfere, just scan with the eyes. When I finish taking it all in the structured end product is passed along to my frontal cortex, and realization dawns on me.

I understand why Agency gave me Miranda Holly.

Suicides are easy. Solvable with simple mathematics. But this corpse hanging brightly lit before me is no ordinary suicide.

Two taps of the thumbs and it’s just her head now. The quality is bad, scarce pixilation at the edges, but I can make out her half-closed eyes. Gooseflesh all up my back. It’s the strangest pair of dead eyes. No sadness. No fear. I gaze with deader eyes than hers, spellbound.

My finger twitches to notify Agency. Moments later, a conformational balloon is projected on the air: the case is officially mine. I wait out the streaming of additional information.

“I’ve updated your schedule,” Descartes says. “You have a funeral to attend tomorrow at 5:30AM.”

I gulp down my second cup of coffee while reading the newly received package.

Descartes bleeps. It’s late and I have to get some sleep. I get up, wave my hand to Descartes, hear him shut all systems down, and drag myself to my bedroom.

In the empty room a single bed with ruffled sheets waits for me. I fish out a melatonin tab from my back pocket and put it under my tongue.

I sling myself over the bed like a wrung-out towel, not bothering to undress. The metallic legs creak under my weight. I bury my head in the pillow but all I find there are Miranda Holly’s dead eyes. Eyes looking happier than I’ve ever been in my entire life.

*

The robot’s legs trudge along the cracked tarmac, shifting weight through micro actuators to compensate for the road’s slight sloping. The robot’s eyes are mine too, and I use them to gaze across the stretching garden of gray stones. Heaps of flowers rot away next to names in marble.

We are a thin line of mourners following a hearse, the gloom of the unborn day all around us.

Behind the humming vehicle walks the immediate family. Her father’s eyes are nested in a craggy worn out face, his hands clasped before him. He brushes his handlebar moustache every few steps. Miranda’s mother walks next to him, her head wrapped in a black scarf. Both look older than I’d imagined them.

Second in line is Miranda’s sister, Flora, the person who first suspected the conclusions of the police department. The suicide part she agrees with but from what I read in the addendum to the case, she senses something deliberately led her sister astray. She’s the submitter of the case to the Agency. Technically, she’s my employer. She wears a black gown and a tilted wide-brimmed felt hat with a single gray feather on its side.

Right behind her is Miranda’s cousin. He’s a young, sullen boy, hugging a wooden cross almost as big as his torso. The original spelling of Miranda Holly’s name is written on the cross in big Cyrillic letters. I notice additional letters. Her parents must’ve altered her name when the Holly family emigrated from Eastern Europe.

Behind the cross-bearer is the shuffling crowd, walking two by two, murmuring prayers or looking abstractedly across the graveyard, their contours outlined by the paleness of dawn.

I walk last in line, behind the entirety of Miranda Holly’s family, observing everything.

Pine trees of human height flank the road which is to lead us to her grave. We walk in silence, slowly.

I look down and notice the robot’s body is appropriately dressed. Even my arms are painted matte black to avoid the usual metallic sheen some might find incongruous at a funeral. A white rose is lodged in my right hand. It comes with each rented body. The agreement’s to observe the proceedings from the side so as not to disturb the family, so I don’t think I’ll manage to get close to the grave. I slow my pace and toss the rose over the pines. Out of a corner of the robot’s eye I see it land and break in two on a tombstone.

Earlier in the morning Flora slipped into the barn where my body was charging up. She grabbed my wrist, her face near mine.

“Pay attention to everything,” she whispered, eyes shifting left and right to the rows of powered down telepresence robots. “I want you to learn as much as you can about her.”

The hearse turns right and the slope evens out. We follow it for a few more minutes until it stops right before the narrow asphalt road gives way to a gravel path.

The driver walks out and whispers to the mother and father. I zoom in on his lips but don’t bother to interpret what he’s saying. I’ll leave that for the hours of detailed footage analysis. The parents nod. The father pulls out a handkerchief, blows his nose and sticks it back in his front pocket.

A loud crash. Startled, the cousin almost lets the large cross slip through his hands. The family shuffles about, looking around at what ruptured the silence.

A claw rises with a grinding sound from the hearse like an abomination. It clicks into place. A grapple descends over the coffin, its prying fingers latch onto little hooks on the lid’s side. The gears shift loudly as the winch begins pulling.

The family parts before the airborne coffin. They gasp as it sways precariously and Miranda’s father nervously blows his nose again. The grapple manoeuvres it towards an open grave and gingerly places it on the mound next to the hole.

The parents approach. A priest draped in black cloth steps out of the vehicle now, clutching the bible.
He walks to the grave, his robe swaying sideways. The family pulls closer and everyone gathers their shoulders to make room. The priest makes the sign of the cross and a moment later so does everyone else.

He has a long wavy beard and wears a cylinder hat. He begins to speak in a language I don’t understand. Some of the family members cry, others nod silently.

I steal a glance up at the clear sky. A black wave soars through the dark blue. The bird circles above our heads, wondering. A little bitterness trickles down my throat — bits of the antidepressant pills I took this morning.

Two flaps of its wings and the majestic bird dives out of sight into the deciduous forest uphill. The sun’s soon about to claw out of the horizon, ready to burn.

While the priest speaks and sings the grappling hook hangs over their heads like the devil’s hand. Behind the robot’s face I smile.

When the priest’s sermon is done, the gears kick into motion again. People take a step back. The hook’s fingers stretch out. It descends on the coffin, picks it up from the mound then gently lowers it into its hole — Miranda Holly’s eternal resting place.

The mechanism retreats back into the hearse and the driver walks in and drives off, leaving the entire family to mourn in peace. The father picks up a rock from the pile, casts it in the hole. One by one, they all line up, throw a piece of dirt over the coffin, cross themselves then file out.

Two old ladies wait for them on the side, treys in hand, serving a strong alcoholic beverage along with lumps of wheat. The mourning family drinks, toasts, chews on the wheat. The sun’s fierceness is starting to make a presence. Everyone’s forehead is sprinkled with sweat but mine. Miranda’s father goes from person to person to receive condolences. Shuffling about, he dabs his face with the handkerchief and sometimes blows his nose.

Only her mother is silent. She sits slouched on the marble of a neighboring grave as she watches the workers bury her daughter one indifferent swing of the shovel at a time.

Flora’s gaze meets mine from out the crowd. She nods at me. I nod back. I’ve seen enough. The robot’s body switches to autopilot on my command then turns around and heads back for the barn to be recharged.

I remove my helmet. MoirĂ© patterns flicker on its display. One by one I yank out the thimbles. My eyes struggle to adjust to the sudden shift of lightning. The dimness and lifelessness of my workroom make me wish I was back at the funeral. A bolt of pain sears through my temples. The goddamn display resolution. It’s too low for prolonged VR.

I stand up, stretch my legs. A few visual gestures for Descartes so he makes a backup of the recording to the external storage device and I stroll out of the room.  

The overhead light brightens with a ping when I enter the kitchen. Stooped over the Fabber, I click about, looking for a decent pill. I rub my forehead with two fingers while I scour the menus. I click the brand I always take. Red flashes over the screen. Shit. My license has expired two weeks ago.

“Descartes,” I groan, “find me some free head pills.”

He chirps in acknowledgment.

A brief moment later, he says, “OpenNSAID, developed by HackPharm, an open-sourced Non Steroid—”

“Download it.”

Descartes relays the downloaded code to the machine and the Fabber hums into motion. It starts whistling like a kettle. Gradually, the noise dies down, and the machine spits out a white pill.

Without thinking I pop it in my mouth and wash it down with cold water.

*

I sit my ass back in my working chair, prodding a finger through the icon of the video recording. In a corner of the room the entire funeral plays back. I swipe my hand diagonally, dragging the video towards my customized analysis software.

It boots up, shifts the video feed to the background. The software’s to scour it for faces, sounds and actions which it then catalogues in a neat database. Rectangular notifications pop up to inform me of new data that it finds. The software translates speech and gestures too and cross-references them in the database to specific faces and sounds.

I’m not entirely sure what Flora wants me to find or learn from all this. Somehow, I think she just wanted me there. The person investigating her death should pay respects, too.

While the software goes through the footage, I decide to dredge the networks for any trace of Miranda’s online activity.

First stop’s the Streamer, a life streaming and socializing service everyone’s using nowadays. I know she has an account. The username and password came with the documents. Her account has been shut down when the company received the death certificate but the data’s still in their data banks. We have about a week before the company wipes it all clean.

I connect to the service.

“You don’t seem to have a Streamer account.” A wide toothy grin spreads across my room.

“Fuck you.” I don’t need a shitty Streamer account. I’m chained to my devices enough as is.

The Cheshire grin withers away. A nondescript form strolls into view and I feed it the user/pass combo. The system recognizes the special case so it sends me straight to the data files where an ominous counter in the upper corner counts out the days to deletion. The system offers to transmit them to my machine and I accept. A fluorescent snail pops up, blazing a trail of green slime from one wall to another. Upon the transfer’s completion the snail dives in the wall, never to be seen again.

I flick through her events, moments of the day she’d deemed important enough to share with the world.

There’s the usual night out with the girls hyperlinked to a bar’s address. I click on it. Photos of the event spring out. She’s drinking cocktails with friends. Toasting. Drinking. Two girls, one blonde, the other of Indian descent. I recognize them from this morning. I make a circle with my hand, select their photos, drag them to my secure case folder. The footage analyzer pings — it’s correlated the two girls with faces from the recording. I extract their names from the photos and store that in my folder, too. In the information gathering phase one knows nothing and everything’s important.

A swipe of the hand brings me back to her lifestream. Scrolling down, I see several similar events, and I go through them, too, saving all new data.

Next I check the messages. Privacy safeguards prevent me from accessing certain messages she’d flagged as secret, but I notice those are few and far between.

My eyes dart across the message list, skimming those that seem trivial. Most are between her and her two friends, colleagues from Vertex Software – the company where she worked as a programmer – on the subject of that night’s bar location or the previous night’s nasty looking guys.

I stop at a message from three days before her suicide. The letters shine like fireflies in the dim room.

Monday, 8:43PM: Mimi, are you gonna go out with us or what? Are you avoiding us? Will you please just let that bullshit go and come with us and have a drink or some K and just loosen up!

The content of the next few messages is in the same vein.

Tuesday, 7:33PM: Jesus Mimi, why aren’t you returning my calls? I’ve been pinging you all day. Even called your desk they said you aren’t there but I know you’re avoiding me.

Tuesday, 10:34PM: Just so you know I’m with Jess and we’re having a great time at Dexter’s. We don’t know what’s gotten into you but if you feel like coming over, please do. Jess says she won’t be sorry if there isn’t a pop of K for you if you do though.

There are no more messages from her two friends after that. There’s one last item in the messages section, this time in the sent folder.

Thursday, 3:21AM: Sorry I’ve been a bad friend, guys. I’m a bit sad and a bit angry now. Seriously. I don’t want to be defined by voyeuristic assholes. Anyways, sorry for being such a mess lately, everything’s been kind of chaotic. I’ll miss you and I know you’ll miss me too, but I have to set myself free. Love you.

Miranda Holly’s last words scroll before my eyes as I drag them to my case folder. The message reads 3:21 AM so this is minutes before she injected that shit into her veins and turned her brain to soup. The coroner’s report stated that not a single synaptic connection had remained intact. There wasn’t even a way to save her mind. The police reports state that shooting Mush is a very unconventional way to off oneself but that it’s gotten somewhat popular recently.

I summon an agent to comb through the nets for voyeur and suicide and define and all permutations of the words, in case there’s a new cult on the block I haven’t heard about but it quickly returns empty handed.

Her two friends’ faces float before me. Jessica Bates and Vera Abburi. It’s very clear that talking to them is my next move.

I stretch my arms. It’s coffee time.

But something’s weird. I cock my head to the side, furrow my brows. There’s an eerie silence. It’s been like this for some time now. Maybe the last half hour or so. It shouldn’t be silent. My palms on the desk, I look around, trying to pinpoint the change that’s making me so uncomfortable. All looks the same. A wave of hot air wafts over my head and shoulders, my neck, back, and the rest of my body. I shiver.

The goddamned AC. The ubiquitous humming is gone.

I look up at the ceiling grille. Climbing on my chair, I wave a hand back and forth to see if there’s any circulation. Nothing.

My chest constricts. Invisible hands gently wrap themselves around my neck, their grip tightening with every breath. Yellow blemishes appear before my eyes.

I prance out of the room, see if it’s any better in the kitchen. It isn’t. My bedroom’s the same. Hot stale stifling air everywhere.

Shit.

Okay. Calm down.

I take a few tentative breaths. Breathe in. I should notify maintenance. Breathe out. They’ll send that David or Darren or whatever like they always do. Breathe in.

“Descartes.” Breathe out. “Get me maintenance on the line.”

Breathe in.

No biggie. Breathe out.

The line chirps and I sense someone on the other end. Breathe in. I tell them about the AC.

Breathe out.

They’ll send a guy in twenty minutes. Breathe in. A minor malfunction.

Nothing to do but wait it out. Breathe out.

*

The guy they sent isn’t David or Darren. Some new worker barely above twenty’s checking out the circuit boards in my condo while I draw in slow hot breaths, slumped over the aluminium kitchen table.

The main circuitry is buried in the kitchen walls behind the cabinets, and he’s on his knees, one hand probing its way up to the elbow. The cabinets are set aside and I’m a bit ashamed of the mould and dirt they revealed. His cheeks are puffed, his face red as he’s straining to find the right cable. I watch, listless.

His hand wriggles some more and then pulls out a rainbow ribbon cable attached to a rectangular connector. He licks his lips eagerly, disconnecting the two. Gaze drifting across my kitchen he counts out the seconds in silence, then sticks the rainbow cable back into the connector.

He gets up, wiping sweat off his glistening forehead with a sleeve. “It’s done,” he says. “Reboot the software.”

He stands in the doorframe, replacing his network analyzer in the belt loop around his olive overalls.

“Descartes, reboot the AC,” I say.

We hear the system power down, then, a moment later the humming returns. I close my eyes, tilt my head back in the cool breeze.

“Oh, man, thank you.”

He grins, showing incredibly white teeth. Little dimples appear in his cheeks.

I escort him to the door of my condo.

“Let me get my card.”

He waves me off. “Oh, no need, it was completely our fault. Everyone above floor hundred and two had it.”

“Lucky us.”

He smiles again then leaves. A grin like that must’ve cost him his last six paychecks.

*

Only Jessica Bates responded to the courier Descartes had sent to both of Miranda’s friends. She agreed to meet me in a private VR environment. I’m strapping tight the sensor sleeves. Attaching the thimbles one by one. The clock says it’s four minutes till our rendezvous. I slid on the helmet, its faceplate the color of dirt. Three minutes to go. The questions I’ve planned for her tumble through my head. Two minutes.

A flick of a switch and the faceplate comes to life, fractals flickering while the image stabilizes. In an instant I’m transported to the address she’d sent me via her courier.

It’s an empty room. White walls. White furniture. Only the chairs’ legs are of a different color. It’s the kind of place they stick you in to drive you nuts.

I sift through the network traffic to figure out my location but I’m shit out of luck. Spoofers placed on connections both in-coming and out-going distort the packets I receive. The ones I’m transmitting hop from router to router on a path impossible to trace in real time. Descartes tries cracking the algorithm but fails miserably. I’m probably being scattered, too, meaning parts of the environment’s code are computed in differing physical locations. This level of paranoia catches me off guard but I’m also pretty damn impressed.

I realize the environment’s simplicity is due to efficiency. As the code of the program grows, so does the difficulty of keeping it a secret.

A door materializes on one of the walls. She steps through it and the contours melt back into the walls.

We shake hands; our network protocols exchange authentication codes so we know who we’re talking to.

She’s dressed in white jeans and pink stilettos, has a collared beige shirt with sleeves rolled up to her elbows. Her blonde hair is combed fashionably to one side, a golden earring dangling from her one visible ear. She curves her thin lips into a smile, sits down on her chair, legs crossed.

“Listen,” I say, “I know this is hard for you, so I’ll be as respectful and brief as poss—”

“No you listen,” she cuts me off. “We’re only here because Flora practically begged me to be cooperative and help in her so called investigation. Frankly I never liked Flora and what she’s doing here with you borders being disrespectful and is of very bad taste.”

Mouth agape, I gaze at her from top to bottom. After a moment I manage to say, “What do you mean?”

Her face closes up like an umbrella. “My best friend committed suicide for cryin’ out loud. Her sister’s paying PIs to look for aliens or some such bullshit to cope with the pain.” The one earring dangles as she shakes her head. “That’s unfair to Mimi’s memory.”

I regain my composure. I best be prudent and handle this interview with utmost care or she might just go on another rant, or worse, disconnect without providing any information.

“I understand,” I say, my tone avuncular. “Why don’t you tell me your side of the story, then?”

Okay, she doesn’t believe anything external had an influence on Holly’s suicide, a conclusion I’m this close to accepting myself, but her perspective on things might be refreshing and bring something new to the table.

“That would be nice,” she says. Her blue eyes sparkle in the room’s whiteness and she eases back into her chair.

“Describe her to me.” I cross my fingers mentally.

One corner of her mouth curves into a half-smile. I breathe a sigh of relief.

“She is… was unique.” Her eyes scour the white ceiling. “She could be your best friend and the biggest bitch at the same time.” She laughs. “I mean I love her but her mood swings… oh, her goddamned mood swings.”

There’s a footnote or two in the reports stored on my hard drive about my subject’s precarious mental state — no concrete diagnosis since she never went to a doctor, just anecdotal evidence offered by her sister. Violent forms of bipolar disorder are treatable and the less severe variants even curable, but Miranda Holly never admitted to having a problem.

“That bad, huh?” I ask.

She gives it a moment’s thought. “Maybe not on the outside. You had to know her and be close to her to notice the difference.”

“Why didn’t she see a professional?”

Jessica shrugs. “Dunno. She described herself as emotional and too empathetic or something. And maybe that’s true. I guess we’ll never know.”

I ask about Miranda’s last days.

Her mood shifts and I can sense it even in this mediated virtual madhouse we’re in. She gazes abstractedly at where the wall swallowed the door and I get the impression she just wants to sneak out of here as fast as possible.

“All I remember is she broke all contact with us,” she says, her eyes fixated on the wall.

“Do you know why?” I try not to push too hard.

Dangling of the gold earring again as she shakes her head. Be gentle, I tell myself.

“Did anything happen out of the ordinary around the time of her death?”

She shakes it again, only slower.

To get meaningful answers I need to change tactic. Try a different angle. “What did you do the days prior to her death?”

She’s taken aback. “Why?”

“Trying to get a better picture of what went on then,” I say, and it seems she’s pleased with my answer.

With her forefinger she rubs her earlobe, around and above the golden jewellery. “Vera and I went out almost every night to unwind from work and all that. We hit the local bars.”

“What did you do at work?”

“I’m not allowed to discuss that,” she says sharply.

It’s not entirely true, though. Their contracts forbid them from going into specifics, but she’s allowed to divulge general bits and pieces. But I’m not here to drill her and it’s becoming obvious she just wants this to end.

“You don’t have to go into the details.”

She sighs. “I was a programmer. Same as Vera and Mimi.”

Vertex Software’s public database no longer holds any record of a Miranda Holly, but I’d accessed a cached copy which left me none the wiser about the specifics of her job there.

“What exactly did she do at the company?”

Jessica cocks an eyebrow and her face is saying don’t push it friend. Nonetheless, she answers, “Same thing we all did. Wait for the managing software to allocate work for you, which meant testing code for other companies most of the time.”

“Do you remember what she worked on around the time of her suicide?”

Her face freezes. I can swear it looks like the VR software’s glitching out on us. Within a moment the resolution’s smoothed out and she’s back the way she was.

“Something about image recognition for an Australian firm.” She’s terse. Laconic.

I bring up the last message on Streamer. Her face jerks in that glitchy way again. She frowns, crossing her arms.

I ask again but she’s silent.

Her patience is obviously up and I don’t mean to overstay my welcome. Besides, I can tell she’s not going to provide any new information. It could be a defence mechanism; after all we are talking about her dead best friend days after the funeral. I’ve seen this reaction time and time again with frail interviewees. Her answers will be plain as paper, boring, useless. Might as well continue this conversation with my virtual assistant.

“Listen, thanks for your time.” I stand up. She does too and saunters over to the wall. The doorframe reappears. She holds the door open for me.

We say goodbye and I step out to be disconnected.

*

It takes three days of labouring over the same data before I finally throw my hands up and admit I’m stuck. There’s a limit to the amount of useful information one can extract out of old recordings. So far, every piece of data has led me to a dead end. Even the always resourceful internet can’t satisfy the infovore inside me, and it’s gotten unbearable. I’m reduced to checking my inbox for a message from Vera every five minutes, on the off chance Descartes has missed it and failed to report it out loud.

Not being able to get a decent thread is beginning to get on my nerves, but I’m not yet ready to give up on this case and admit the police were right all along. I can’t just write Miranda off as a nutcase, but Flora’s assertion that something bigger is behind her sister’s suicide is getting less plausible by the minute.

My job’s not to ask why I’m doing what I’m paid to do, and contractors aren’t obliged to provide explanations, but Jessica Bates’ description of my subject’s frail mental state left a sour taste in my mouth.

One thing’s still nagging me, though. Flora’s original case request ended with a sentence I can’t get out of my head. My sister’s been happy her entire life and if it weren’t for the mind parasites they’d fed her, I’m sure that would’ve meant more than twenty eight years.

For a moment it sounds like she’s the paranoid one but those words prove to be a great source of unease. Miranda was surrounded by friends and people who loved her and her lifestream indicates she’d loved them back, but what of the sudden drop, the anomaly, three days before she decided to liquefy her brain? Did she just snap? If the swings were half as bad as Jessica described them why not just go to a doctor? Even if there’s more to it, she did kill herself, so what’s Flora aiming at here? Whom does she want caught and unmasked?

All this running around in circles is making me anxious and for the first time in months I feel like going outside.

I check my inbox. Nothing. My finger hangs limp before the projector and I start making the inbox checking motion again. I catch myself just in time.  

That’s it. This’ll drive me crazy.

With both hands I wave at my projector. All systems switch to hibernation.

I grab my coat, head for the door.

“Going outside?” says Descartes.

“I need some fresh air.”

Pause. Then, “Do you want company?”

I haven’t left my apartment in months. Sure, they say the sun’s bad for you, but that’s not to real reason. Even though I hate to admit it, doing what I do is starting to affect the little that’s left of my personal life. It’s starting to scare me off from living.

“Definitely,” I say.

He copies himself from my home system straight to my body LAN.

“Let’s go out, then,” he whispers in my ear.

I shuffle out of the apartment. The door beeps twice behind me to indicate that it’s locked.

The narrow hall is flanked by apartments. My head spins and my legs buckle. Abject terror seizes me, pleading me to step back into the safety of my apartment. I take a deep breath, steady myself against the wall.

I whisper to myself, “I can do this.”

I realize I know none of my neighbors. What if one of them decides to peer into the hallway now. I don’t even know their names. That’s okay, I reassure myself. Nobody knows anybody today.

I bump my fist against the elevator button and it flashes green. With deep breaths I count out the moments to its arrival. The number one hundred and fifty blinks above my head as the doors slide open.

Into the elevator. “Know where we’re going?” I subvocalize.

“Vera Abburi’s place. I have the address,” says Descartes.

The numbers on the elevator screen start counting down. I smile.

Descartes. He knows me all too well.

*

A fury of sounds welcomes us outside. It’s night, and everyone is out. As if the city’s buildings have been squeezed out like wounds and the entire puss flowed out to the streets. People jostle about, shoulder their way through the crowd.

It’s overwhelming. I want to turn round, back into my building, up the elevator and inside my air-conditioned apartment. I can use a robot like I always do.

But I remain rooted to the spot. The surge of adrenaline keeps me in place.

My building stretches over me like a shadow in a nightmare. A step forward and I tear myself off it to join the torrent of people. We go where the sidewalk takes us. Like being picked up by the shoulders and carried, feet inching off the ground. Beside us cars whistle about at great speeds in the street’s six lanes, traffic lights conducting them like an orchestra on fast-forward. Neon lights flash on and off in a rainbow of colors spelling out names for liquor stores, drug stores or strip clubs.

The faces in the crowd are diverse. I don’t let my gaze linger on any of them for too long – in a big city it’s best to err on the side of caution – but the sheer number of faces makes even the slightest glimpse feel like I’m missing out on the others. My stomach’s turning over itself but I ignore it. All those geeks from online chatrooms were right – going out is a rush, alright. There’s a very raw edge to it, really. Knowing I could get stabbed, or mugged, despite the very low chance of that happening turns a simple walk as exciting as a rollercoaster ride.

A pair of blue eyes meets my gaze and I look down immediately. My heart beats harder. I quicken my pace for a few steps, but then I realize I’m acting childish and slow back down into the rhythm of the throng.

Occasionally a cheap robot would show its face in the crowd. The slow facial expressions are the giveaway, otherwise, most expensive models look and talk like us.

I arrive at a crossing. From its four corners rise the legs of a skyscraper. The glass towers go up and up into the thick smog, and I can barely make out the bridge where all four connect.

Descartes lays out a map of the city before my eyes. Vera Abburi lives in a house in an affluent neighborhood some fifteen kilometers from here.

“I hailed a cab a minute ago,” he says in my ear.

We wait at the curb.

A yellow blemish wheezes from the distance. It switches lanes, tires screeching, and stops right before us.

Back door pops open. We get in.

*

Out of the cab and into the blue light of the boulevard. Descartes relays payment information to the onboard computer of the car. The transaction’s confirmed. It drives off along a downward slope back into the belly of the city.

Around us not a living soul, yet there are houses everywhere. Small houses with little windows and backyards for barbecue, mailboxes and porches. A piece of suburbia hidden like a secret, undevoured by the towering goliaths of glass and metal in the distance.

The sidewalk’s lined up with candelabras, scattering a pale blue on the tarmac.

“You can see the stars from here,” says Descartes in my ear.

He’s right. White dots sparkle in the sky like jewels.

“Take a picture.”

He snaps a screenshot through my eyes, stores it in memory.

Vera Abburi’s house is two blocks down. I didn’t want us stopping right before it so we can scout out the area first, get some sense of our surroundings. I saunter over to it, observing along the way.

Her house is exactly like the one next to it, and the one after, and all others. Seems as if a giant Fabber shat them out, one after the other, all alike, so the inhabitants feel included and belonging to a community or something. Much the same as in my building complex, or all building complexes in the city, except I don’t have to wave at my neighbors, smile, or pretend I like them. Shit, I can’t even recall their faces.  

A gravel driveway leads up to a wood porch. Up the stairs, then I ring the doorbell.

I can feel her eyes on me through the camera in the upper corner. I try to look as affable as I can. A moment later her voice hisses from a speaker, laced with a tiny buzz of static.

“Who is this?”

I lean closer to the door. “I’m hired by Flora Holly, Miranda’s sister… Can we please speak in private?”

A pause. I take out my card from the wallet and hold it before the camera. A simple database query by its pattern-matching software should confirm my identity.

The door buzzes. “Come in,” she says.

I step in, the door clicks shut behind me.

Inside it’s different. The house has goddamn character. It’s cosy. So much warmth emanating from the place. I haven’t felt anything like this.

The walls are coated with Venetian plaster in all shades of red. Subtle stencil design on the bottom that takes a moment to notice.

“You want tea?” A voice from behind a corner. I hear the clanking of kettles.

“Sure.”

Out of the hall and into the living room. It’s large. Or maybe it’s regular. How would I know? My apartment doesn’t have one.

Two beige sofas are placed at a right angle. I sit down, look around. There’s a framed Indian textile on one wall. Two rustic bookshelves hold a bunch of books. At first glance they seem divided. Technology books go in the right one, horror titles in the left.

Vera Abburi strolls in the room, trey in hand. On it, two cups on saucers and a steaming pot. She sets it on the table.

“I took the liberty of adding milk, hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all, thank you.”

She sets the cup before me, pours tea. She sits on an ottoman opposite me, pours tea in her cup, too.

Her head on one hand, elbow on knee, she looks at me, dark bags under her eyes. She picks the cup up by its handle that looks like one half of a heart. Brings it to her mouth.

“So,” she says, “aren’t you going to ask me questions?”

I snap out of my reverie and check if Descartes is recording. He is.

Before I get to speak the doorbell chimes. She’s just as surprised as me. Her eyes acquire that glassy distance – her digital assistant’s piping the cam footage directly to her optical nerve.

Up and down her epiglottis moves. She’s subvocalizing with her guests. 

Back into focus again, she looks at me.

“It’s for you,” she says.

Startled, I ask, “Who is it?”

“Two men in suits. They said they know you are here.”

Who the hell could know I’m here?

“Don’t open the door.”

She’s deliberating, then subvocalizes some more. She gets up but I stand in her way.

“Do you have a back exit?”

She frowns. “I don’t want to get involved. Why don’t you wait here while I open…”

I shake my head. “You won’t get involved. Say I ran out. Stall them. Find out as much as you can about who they are then contact me via my assistant.”

Reluctantly, she nods, and points at her bathroom. I slide inside as she goes to open the door.

In an upper corner of the bathroom is a small window. I pop it open, put one foot on the tub to try to climb out of it. Somehow I squeeze out and stumble down into the backyard. I hear voices from inside the house. Perched against the outer wall I hear one of them entering the bathroom.

Footsteps come closer to the window. Before he can get a chance to peek out, I start running.

“There,” he yells out.

I run down the slope leading to the city. A quick glance back reveals two black shapes getting out of Vera’s house and into a black car. The engine revs.

“Get a cab to meet us somewhere,” I gasp through ragged breath. Descartes acknowledges.

Over a hedge fence and into someone else’s backyard. I hear the car swerve in the street.

“Scratch that,” I say. “We’re going by subway. Crowds. Witnesses.”

Descartes maps out the fastest route to a subway station, slaps it in a corner of my eye.

I rush through the backyard, careful not to wake anybody up. Past the garage, over the driveway and out on the street on the other side. Two yellow circles sweep the ground then the car surges out the corner, turning my way.

Sunny Hills station is two blocks north, near a public school. I run across the street. My left foot catches on the curb and I trip. Flat on my face. The car edges closer. I push myself up, break into a run. I can feel light on my back.

My elbows are skinned. God how it burns. Warm blood drips down my chin.

I take a sharp right turn, jump over another house’s fence. My predator drives further down then makes a right, too. The engine’s too silent. It whispers. Nobody will be awake to hear the car run me over.

This yard has a pool. It’s empty now. An open mouth. I circle round it, then over the fence and into another row of streetlamp blue.

“One row to go,” Descartes says.

I remember to take deep breaths. Haven’t used my muscles in so long it feels like tendon will rip from bone any minute now. Each step hurts, but I run, adrenaline numbing the pain away.

Again the lights, followed by the car. It comes from my left.

I burn with strength. Across the street, I swing myself over another fence, through a yard. A dog growls, barks out loud, but I’m out of there before it leaves the kennel.

There it is. To my right the ground opens up, stairs leading down to Sunny Hills station. I take five steps at a time down into the stale air of the subway tunnels.

I hear the car pull over. Two doors open and are quickly slammed shut.

The station’s pristine. I guess the rich never take the train so there’s nobody to filthy up the place.

A booming voice announces a train’s about the leave. I go through the turnstile, Descartes exchanges bank account info and it charges me for the ride. Down some more stairs. A pocket of hot air hits me right in the face.

The train’s slick silver doors are closing.

“Hold it,” I yell out to a middle-aged woman inside the train.

She springs up, waves her hand before the door’s sensor. Two big steps and I slide in just in time. I can’t believe my luck.

The train starts rolling. A soft voice announces the name of the station next in line.

My heart’s about to spring out of my chest.

Two black suits run down the stairs, but then the train picks up speed and Sunny Hills station becomes a blur.

All I see through the windows now is my bloodied reflection and corny ads on the tunnel walls.

*

Scratching a Save the Planet decal off the pole absent-mindedly, I try to put things in perspective. Could the ones chasing me be responsible for Miranda Holly’s death? If so, how are they responsible for it?

The motherly voice from the speaker says the name of the station in different languages. It’s my stop.

People on handles lean sideways as the train decelerates. It grinds to a halt and they straighten up. The doors swing open. A big portion shuffles out. I remain inside.

It’s no stretch to assume the assholes know my address. It’d be wiser to stay away awhile. Lay low someplace until I figure out what’s what.

I ride almost to the end of the route. On the penultimate station I get off. It looks desolate, depressing. Paper bags strewn over the floor, walls graffitied, thrash cans full to the brim. I climb up the stairs, hoping for fresh air.

The neighborhood is rough but I have a friend here. More of an acquaintance really. I’ve helped him out of deep shit once and I know he knows he owes me.

Blood has caked in my nostrils, its metallic smell going wherever I go.

Up the stairs and onto the street. There’s no blue street light here. No houses, no backyards, no pools either. Only brown, bricked buildings row after row in a grid of poverty.

I walk the sidewalk in silence. I’m tired, muscles burning, in dire need for sleep.

The sun’s about to come out. In the distance I can see its first rays glimmer on skyscrapers.

Miranda wasn’t insane. She didn’t suffer a worse than usual bout of depression and melted her brain. Something drove her to suicide. Perhaps those two assholes might know more about that.

I turn into a bleak side street. There’s a Styrofoam cup with a grinning rooster giving the thumbs up discarded on the tarmac, one side of it melted away by scorching daylight. I kick it and it rolls in a semicircle.

A grip on my shoulder from behind. I’m spun around.

“Hello.” Black suit and tie. Neatly trimmed beard. A perfect smile, dimples in his cheeks.

“You,” I gasp.

He lifts his other arm, sprays my face.

I stagger, fall back. Someone catches me from behind.

I lie on the ground, gazing at the blue black sky. Two blurry faces lean over me.

Everything goes dark.

*

Two smears appear, quickly coming into focus. The shapes move. One approaches me. Blinding light flashes from my left, then from my right side. I squeeze my eyes shut, try to remember where I am.

“This’ll wake you up.”

A little prick on my shoulder. A cold sensation spreads from it to the rest of my body. Excitement runs through my veins, my heart pumps harder, jolting me out of stupor.

I’m tilted back in a comfortable padded recliner. My legs are stretched out but tied at the feet with plastic straps. My arms are velcroed to the armrests. A brown seatbelt is fastened around my torso and the chair’s back to insure complete immobility.

“The fuck is this?”

One of the two men is leaning against a cabinet, arms crossed, his face showing unmistakable signs of fatigue.

“It’s for our protection,” he says.

The other is going through a box of stuff and I see him replacing a flashlight and putting the box in the lowest drawer of the cabinet.

“You bugged my system,” I tell him.

“We had to. Sorry.” He’s not smiling anymore. Nor is he in grimy olive overalls.

The room is small and sterile. Feels like they emptied someone’s office on a short notice to make space for me.

“What you gonna do now, torture me?”

Both of them cringe.

“Nobody’s gonna torture anybody,” says the bastard who corrupted my systems. Well at least this explains how he paid for that dentist.

They both seem unwilling to talk much, as if they’re waiting for something. Or someone. Maybe an order for how to dispense with me.

I realize now why I haven’t been able to dig out any new info all this time. Ever since that fake repair job the networks were turned against me, preventing me from finding clues. I remember the VR glitches with Jessica Bates. They must’ve tampered with the interview. Filtered her answers.

“What the hell is going on here?” I holler out. Waiting is driving me insane. I jerk my hands up and down. The straps hold out.

My repairman leans over me, looks me in the eyes.

“This is not what you think. You’re not a hostage.” There’s genuine regret in his eyes.

“Oh sorry, I suppose I must’ve sprayed myself with narcotics, dragged my own ass over here and strapped myself to this chair. Yeah, I’m no hostage.”

I spit in his face. “You can shove that condescending tone up your ass.”

He wipes it, straightens up and goes back to his friend with arms crossed.

The door swings open and a much shorter and plumper man walks in. He nods at my two kidnappers. He places a briefcase on the table next to me, opens it with a click.

“We’ll need to examine you for dangerous technology,” he says. “We don’t want you to go ballistic on our asses.” He laughs, the tufts of hair that still remain on his balding head bob up and down.   

He pulls a lamp out of the briefcase, puts it on one of the armrests. A bunch of cables go out of it and into his briefcase, which I now realize has an embedded computer.

“You couldn’t do this while I was out?”

The one leaning on the cabinet says, “That would be illegal. We wanted you awake for everything so you couldn’t claim before a judge that your well-being was in any way endangered.”

The lamp shoots squares of light at different parts of my body and its operator mumbles to himself, peering in his briefcase.

“Trust me, if I go before a judge I think I might mention the kidnapping first.” I tug at the restrains again.

“That’s for your and the public’s safety. Besides, we wanted to politely invite you in but you ran away. We though you’d developed some crazy conspiracy crap.”

The lamp stops flashing. Shorty tells them I’m clean, folds his lamp, replaces it, shuts his briefcase and strolls out the door.

“Okay then,” says my fake repairman, “let’s untie you and take you to him. He’ll explain everything.”

*

We’re walking along a small corridor. Both men accompany me. There are no restraints. No handcuffs. They know I can’t run away. They know I no longer want to. My curiosity piqued, I’m not even considering escape.

The corridor’s crooked, gently sloping downwards.

There’s no echo. Our footsteps sound muffled. We don’t talk. I cast occasional sidelong glances at them but their faces are blank, telling me nothing.

The corridor ends with an elevator. The chromium doors part, revealing two soldiers inside.

We step in.

My stomach turns over itself. I try to count out the seconds to gauge how deep underground we’re going but I quickly lose track.

We step out into a carpeted hallway flanked by office doors. Ferns grow out of pots. The walls are painted white. There’s a water dispenser, too.

One of my captors knocks on a door.

“Come in.” A faint voice from inside.

A carousel of holographs swirls in the center of the room. He’s standing in the middle of it, orchestrating their movement. He punches the air and a smoky string of numbers disappears. Drags his hand across and two separate sets of decimals merge. The halo of numbers shines bright; they permutate, tumble through the air like moths.

I realize I’ve seen this man before. Not in the flesh but in my workroom. I’ve seen his narrow face and messy hair hanging there like his own projections do now.

He drops his hands. Obeying his movement, the holograms die down.

He walks up to me, hand outstretched.

“Hi,” he says. “Peter Casey. Welcome to Paradise City headquarters.”

*

He gestures at a swivelling chair. Reluctantly, I sit down.

“You may leave us alone,” he says, and my captors obey, filing out of the room.

His face is like an inverted triangle, prominent forehead but barely any room for his mouth. He’s thin, frail, hair in desperate need of a comb. Unlike his employees he’s not wearing a suit or tie or any formal attire whatsoever, but a black and white checkered wool vest and a plain white shit underneath it, its open collar slightly askew.

He looks like a cartoon character.

“Coffee?”

Please.

He puts a plastic cup under the espresso machine’s nozzle, switches it on.

“I suppose you’d like to learn what’s happed to Mrs. Holly?”

“It’s what I’m paid for,” I say.

He chuckles, sits down on a chair a bit taller than mine.

The machine hums for a moment, then fills my cup up with delicious black coffee, drop by drop.

“You think there’s foul play here, don’t you? I can see it in your eyes.” He leans over his desk, peers into my face. “Afraid you’ll be disappointed when you learn the truth.”

He scoops up my cup, puts it on the desk before me and places another one under the nozzle.

“Let me be the judge of that,” I say, breathing in the beautiful aroma. I take a sip, burning the roof of my mouth. The bitter taste loosens me up and I make myself comfortable in my chair.

He gets his cup. Takes a sip.

His fingers form a steeple. A few dots pop out of nowhere. More numbers. He follows their dance with his gaze. We sit in silence a while and I get the impression he’s waiting for me to start asking questions.

“So tell me,” I say, “what did Miranda Holly do for this company exactly?”

He snaps his fingers and the numbers blink out of existence.

“She was a programmer.” He’s absent-minded. I can’t shake off the feeling that I’m conversing with someone who isn’t exactly here.

“I know that,” I say. “But she stumbled onto something here, didn’t she?”

He claps his hands. A bunch of documents materialize before us.

“You see, when I first began work on Paradise City I got all sorts of lunatics on the phone demanding they be let in. To be the first of the Immortals would be a privilege and a middle finger to the other rich bastards that didn’t make the first cut. In effect, that’s how we financed the project in the first place. Upfront investment by twenty rich businessmen with a fear of death to make you wonder about the kind of lives they’ve led,” he says, watching the floating images.

“One of the preconditions on my part was that they sign a waver allowing me to conduct scientific research with their uploaded minds. Nothing compromising, obviously, but research nonetheless, with the goal of furthering the field.”

He pushes his palm and the documents float my way. I ping Descartes to read them to me but he’s not responding – they must’ve switched him off. My eyes glaze over the contract, and despite the thick legalese I see that what Peter Casey’s saying is true.

“Okay, but what has this to do with Miranda Holly?”

He snaps his fingers again and the documents are replaced by rectangular floating screens, windows into other worlds.
In one a person’s lounging in a hammock, drinking cocktails. The one next to it opens up to a bright blue sky and a man riding a dragon amidst clouds. Yet another shows a family, chatting idly over dinner.

“This is Paradise City,” I gasp as I realize I’m spying on the first human minds residing entirely inside computers.

“Paradise Cities,” he corrects me calmly. “The original software has been bought and is currently running on other supercomputers too: two in Europe, two in China, one in Japan.”

He takes another sip of his coffee. “What Miranda Holly worked on was an update of the graphics engine. What she discovered were functions in the code pertaining to my research. She figured the program was malicious, that the poor residents aren’t safe. She contacted her supervisor who in turn contacted us. We then brought her in for a chat.”

He rubs his forehead with two fingers.

“I showed her the contracts and documents to prove what we’re doing is legal, but she wanted to know more. She swore she’d go public unless I explain the experiments behind what she referred to as ‘mind-mangling program code’,” he says. “So I did. I showed her my experiments.”

He pokes the air with his fingers and the Paradise City windows collect to one side, making room for an emergent fog of numbers.

“When we dealt with the first upload we applied a compression algorithm to groups of neurons, effectively porting them to computer chips. We’re not simulating every single neuron and glial cell separately but abstracting the way they behave through simple mathematics. Action potential, chemical build-up within the cytoplasm, synaptic firings and all that biology is turned to numbers which represent it.”

I try to follow his words, nodding apprehensively.

“There’s nothing more obvious that this,” he says, and pauses to drain the last drops of coffee into his mouth.

A swing of the arm and a cloud of numbers forms between the two of us. All windows to the different instances of Paradise City dissolve but one – a couple frolicking in the grass beneath an oak tree.

“What you see here,” he says, pointing at the cloud, “is what you see here.” He points at the window depicting the couple at sunset.

Buzzing like flies, the numbers are a constant blur of ones and zeros, changing according to the actions of the simulation they represent.

I ask, naively, “Is that…the code to Paradise City?”

His thin lips stretch into a smile. “It’s a numeric representation, yes.”

Taking a deep breath, he says, “Now, I’ve always wanted to hold the world in my hands, test out a few hypotheses I’ve held since childhood. And the Paradise City framework is built with that in mind – a perfect simulation of our world down to the quantum level, to be manipulated as desired.”

“What hypotheses?” His words and manner of speaking do nothing to abate my first impression of him as a deranged person draped in a lab coat.

“Observe,” he says.

Peter does a weird finger gesture and the numbers come into focus. Over the rim of my paper cup I see they’re no longer in motion. The screen into Paradise City is now a picture.

“Let’s review the last five minutes of simulation.” Like with an old videotape he rewinds the movements of the two residents, and I see them get up from the grass, the man sit back down on a stool, pick his paint-brush up, the woman peer at the canvas he’s painting on, rub his shoulders, then depart from the scene altogether, leaving him all alone with the landscape.

The numbers are also changing, I suspect backtracking into the previous states of the simulation. 

This makes me uncomfortable. I fidget in my seat. “Can they feel that?”

He ignores my question.

“Understand that I can’t rewind too far back – keeping all passed states in memory would require a storage device the size of the Earth. Instead, Paradise City’s been programmed to keep a finite number of states in memory, something which would translate to roughly five minutes of our own time.”

He brings his hands together. At his signal the window showing the numbers is split in two identical windows of equal size.

“What I can do, though, is copy this state of simulation, and run it in another instance.”

A snap of his fingers and that’s exactly what happens. Before me float four translucent screens, each pair showing the exact same thing: a woman appearing into a landscape, rubbing her partner’s shoulders, admiring his painting, then lying into the grass as the sun sets. The other two windows – the second part of each pair – shows the numbers representing the simulated worlds.

The avatars spring back to life.

“What happened?” I ask. “Did you just make a copy of them?”

He nods fervently. “I did. Don’t you find this strange?”

I scour the scenes for a moment, looking for an imperfection, a glitch. “There’s nothing strange. Both are identical.”

He’s beaming. “Exactly.”

“Why is that strange?”

He looks taken aback as if my inability to comprehend is meant as an insult. He regains composure quickly. “Because what I’ve done is taken their whole world – let’s call it Paradise City 1 – at time t and made a copy – Paradise City 2 – of it, and ran it on a completely different set of processors. What happened? PC2 behaves exactly like PC1, goes through the exact same states, and ends up at the exact same spot.”

I frown. “So?”

He bangs a fist on his desk. “This means their world is deterministic. Despite all its complexity, if you take the world at time t and observe it until t+n, regardless of how many times you rewind and restart the simulation, every virtual atom will go through the same motions from t to t+n. Every person will perform the same action regardless of how many times you attempt to start over. Their future will always be unchangeable.”

Peter strokes his oily hair as I digest his words.

“Can you predict their future?”

“No. If I wanted to figure out where a resident of Paradise City will end up in a year’s time, I’ll have to calculate and take into account so many things that I’ll end up simulating an entire year. That is no different than just letting the simulation run its course.”

He smiles, his eyes following a newly spawned swarm of fireflies from the projector.

I’m lost, unable to see the big picture, if there is one at all, but I remember something.

“Who are the Voyeurs?” I ask him.

He chuckles.

“When a person’s fate is sealed, and if you put them in the same position they always make the same choice, how can they be different from characters in a cartoon? What gives them the right to be called alive?”

He gets up, refills his cup with coffee. I’m not sure if he’s waiting for me to answer his question.

“It’s us,” he says, thumping his chest. “Make ten copies of the same five minute interval and put ten different people in front of ten different screens and I’ll guarantee you’ll get ten interpretations of the events shown.”

The Voyeurs. “Imparting identity through observation,” I say. Their nickname is well-deserved and the irony of the situation’s making me laugh. Hoping to escape death and overcome physical limits to be free, the residents of Paradise City signed up to be sock puppets in a panoptical charade that’s not really living up to its name.

I swallow, try to calm my nerves down a bit. “You’re saying those rich uploads somehow don’t have an identity of their own? That they need us for that? How…uh, how did this drive someone to suicide?”

He leans over his desk, grabs my wrists. He’s out of his fucking mind, I realize.

“Didn’t you listen?” His eyes gleam with delight. He licks the corner of his mouth and leaves a bit of white spittle there. “PC was designed to model the real world down to the deepest physical level. If their world is deterministic then so is ours.”

Sweat’s glistening on his forehead. His eyes bulge out. He takes a deep breath, lets go of my hands and relaxes back into his chair.

“I don’t see the connection,” I admit. “Why would that depress her?”

“It would depress a lot of people.”

“But it changes nothing about our daily lives,” I protest. “And why would she worry about your Voyeurs? There’s no one looking down on us.” 

“We have no way of knowing that.” He nods solemnly, eyes closed. “The mathematical probability of us being in a simulation is very, very high.”

The hair on the back of my neck stands up and my stomach seems to want to squeeze its contents up and out. I’ve heard this idea discussed before on VR forums I used to frequent. Once a civilization reaches a certain technological threshold it will no doubt create a simulation of evolution, which will then yield one or many civilizations, who when the time comes would themselves fashion simulations and the chain would continue into infinity. The probability of us being the first to simulate life is close to zero. Or so the theory goes.

But I never bought it, and I can’t believe Miranda Holly, a reasonable software engineer in a respectable firm, accepted all this bullshit. This guy is bat-shit insane and she should’ve seen that. She should’ve told her friends. They would’ve seen it and explained or helped her. I hate this lunatic and want to take a swing at him.

A sudden coldness writhes in the pit of my gut. I’m getting emotional about a case subject, I realize. Without a word I stand up. His eyes are closed and he’s drawing deep, slow breaths.

“I’d like to leave now.” My tone’s a pitch higher than usual.

He nods, puts his fist inside his hand.

The door swings open and my two captors stride in. It’s weird but I’m sort of glad to see them again.

There’s one more thing I need to know.

“Why did you tell me this? Why did you tell her?”

“Soon, the whole world will learn of this, my life’s work, and I wish to reveal my discoveries myself.” He spreads his arms wide. “In the meanwhile, I can’t afford to have the public receive distorted versions of my work by a suicidal bitch and her death investigator.”

“Take me home,” I say to the two henchmen, and prance out the room without looking at the lunatic or saying anything.

*

Blindfolded and in a jeep’s backseat. The first few minutes I try to visualize and etch into memory the route we take but I quickly lose focus and let my head drop and lull from side to side.

My stomach’s contents slime their way up my oesophagus and I swallow, desperately trying to prevent myself from vomiting. That fucking car freshener

I force my mind to go through the conversation just so I don’t puke last night’s veggie soup.

So one crazy asshole says our fate is sealed – our lives written out – and we have to accept it or end up as someone’s suicide case. People might take offence and clutch at vague notions of free will or liberty to their very last breath, and yet others might take solace that a heavy weight’s been lifted off their shoulders – no more worrying where you end up, just keep moving and follow the footprints. It’s all bullshit but I have this nagging feeling that I need to take a side.

But then there’s the third, most probable, option – Peter Casey’s wrong.

Regardless of his little theories, one person’s already dead, and if he goes public with them many might follow suit. But hasn’t that always existed? If I go after everyone depressed by these findings to convince them suicide isn’t a solution, shouldn’t I do the same for every other gullible cultist on Earth?

Resigned, I let my head drop, and let it lull with the car’s motion.

*

I explained to Flora everything, and my bank balance is slightly above zero again. She appeared disappointed when we met. Her hunch was true but I doubt the mind parasites she had suspected were armchair philosophy arguments. In the end they might’ve played a part, but I name Miranda Holly’s emotional wobbles as the decisive factor.

I’m sitting before my desk. Descartes, restored and backed-up, stays silent, waiting for my commands.

I wonder if I should get another case. There really isn’t much to do and three days of rest is long enough – if sleeplessness and obsessing over a dead person can qualify as rest. Or maybe I need a bigger break. Something more substantial. It’s not just Holly, but Peter Casey’s crazed ramblings, too.

I get up, stroll over to the kitchen and have my Fabber churn out my dose of serotonin reuptake inhibitors. It hums for a moment then two purple pills pop out. I clench my fist, squeezing them.

Is my choice written out on tape somewhere? Could my next move be observed – precipitated even – by a Voyeur?

I smile, tossing the pills in the trash. A burst of adrenaline makes my legs wobble and I break into fits of laughter. Walking over to my bedroom I throw myself over the bed.

A thought is stretching over me until it has me overpowered. That crazy bastard.

I roll in my bed, unable to stop laughing.

*

Nothing’s changed. I’m not saying that now I believe Peter Casey, or that I believe that you exist.

To be honest, I’m not sure I want you to be real. Because if you are, I can’t say I’m pleased with your work. But then there’s the flip side. A simple test to be made. A request, if you will.

One Voyeur sees the numbers, the data, reads the tape, and interprets my world into existence. But we can’t be alone out here, just you and I. It would be ironic if that’s the case, me being all special, when my whole life I’ve felt anything but. No, there have to be many observers. Many Voyeurs.

And then there’s the tape. The data. The almighty frame of words.

I wonder how I appear through it, with my identity shaped by the lens of your own thoughts and emotions. Do you see me as I see myself?

Well, doesn't matter, because now I’d like you to let me be seen by someone else. I have a sack full of regrets and shit I should’ve done differently. I’m not asking for the impossible here, I know my actions are immutable and there’s no changing the story. But someone else might see them differently. Make sense of them in a way you couldn’t. Maybe a different Voyeur will see blonde chick where you see grumpy old man. A decent person surrounded by loved ones instead of a lonely misanthrope.

Give me a second chance. Rewind me and pass me around so I start all over.

Look away.